The Shavous Portion in English
This is the famous Jewish day of celebration because it concludes seven weeks of counting. We started counting on the second night of Passover!
This is the day that unified the Jewish people as a nation. At the conclusion of our 40 days and 40-night journey in the dessert, a request was made to the nations of the world. G-d asked every other nation if they wanted to accept the Ten Commandments. When they asked what was in it, G-d said 1) No Killing 2) No Stealing ect.. and they all refused, years ago people didn’t live as they do today. This is the famous day the Jewish people accepted and received the 10 commandments. This is the framework of the Torah. The Torah is the history and laws of the Jewish people. This is the distinguishing marker of the Jewish people’s hatred throughout their long history.
In the third book of our Torah a portion is called Kedoshim. What does it mean? Is it a mitvah? If so how does one fulfill it?
It is a Hebrew word that has no perfect translation into English, but it would not be inappropriate to associate it with the terms ‘holy’, special’, designated’.
The Parsha begins by Hashem telling Moshe to gather the entire nation together to teach them this parsha, which begins with the edict that we, the Children of Israel are to be Kedoshim. The difficulty in defining this term leads to an inherent difficulty in defining the mitzvah being given. Let us try exploring some of the classic approaches of our sages.
Rambam and the Book of Eductaion (Sefer HaChinuch – famous medieval commentary on the mitzvos in the guise of a father introducing his soon to be Bar Mirtzvah’d son to the mitzvos in the Torah) do not count ‘kedoshim’ as one of the mitzvos. Rather they understand it to be akin the category of general reproofs and charges such as “Keep and do My mitzvos’, ‘Guard all these decrees’ , ‘Cursed is he who does not fulfill the Torah” etc. In other words the command for us to be kedoshim’, is as though we were being reminded and encouraged to keep all the aforementioned mitzvos.
Rashi says kedoshim refers to being separated, or abstaining from superficial lusts and forbidden relations. He then cites a number of verses where we see ‘kedusha’ being synonymous and a direct result of being removed from illicit matters.
The Maharal builds on Rashi, explaining that the kedusha refers to the expression and fulfillment of the neshama. The main obstacle which blocks our holy souls from enervating their divine powers is physicality, and more particularly, our bodies. Only when we control our lower urges, and hone our actions, and even our desires to be in line with our side of kedusha, our neshamas, will be able to act and become elevated, spiritual people. This lesson is so important that this parsha needed to be said to the entire congregation, especially in its caution regarding the pleasures of the flesh, which is especially pertinent to the masses and fringes of society. In order to foster our kedusha, we try to protect ourselves and our families and communities from seeing that which is improper, and from being even innocuously involved with potentially titillating forbidden matters.
Ramban approaches the ‘mitzvah’ like Rashi, in that ‘kedoshim’ is indeed an independent mitzvah – however he argues on what that mitzvah entails. Ramban brings strong arguments to demonstrate that ‘kedusha’ is not exclusively associated with sensual matters (after all it is the same root as ‘kiddush, and kaddish’, and Beis HaMikdash (our Holy Temple) – rather he explains it refers to a general directive to be refined and elevated. He presents a classic picture to portray his theme: imagine a Jew who is careful to buy a properly kosher wine, and meat with the best glatt +++ heksher, and then parks himself on a park bench and gluttonously devours an enormous amount of meat, and drinks himself into an idiotic stupor. It would seem that one could behave entirely within the bounds of Torah, yet be a total degenerate, disgusting person, therefore with this command to be kedoshim, Hashem is guiding us on a principle of Being. To Be a holy people, to be Hashem’s messengers and statesmen in the world, demands us to Be like our Creator, at least in as much as we can via removing ourselves from lowliness and chaos and animalism, and reaching up to our divine root by resonating with the Torah, which was created as the perfect mate for the Jewish people, and we were created as the perfect mate for it, to help realize each other’s greatness and kedusha. The Ramban is telling us that if one hits all 612 other mitzvos, yet misses this one, then he has missed the boat, he remains a boor, and his mitzvos will not elevate sanctify him the way they were intended to.
2. What is unique about the order and wording of the third verse? E.g. The mitzvah of honouring parents is repeated – why? And what is different in this verse? Why does the mitzvah begin with the word “a man”? And is the end of the phrase in singular or plural? So too the mitzvah of shabbos is repeated – why? And what do we learn from the juxtaposition?
A: There are so many apparent difficulties, let’s list a few to awaken us to some important kashas which should hit us upon examining this verse:
a) In the Ten Commandments – the mitzvah of shabbos precedes honouring parents.
b) “ “ “ “ – we were told to ‘Remember (Zachor) the Shabbos, here we are told to Guard it.
c) Here shabbos is plural (Shabbasos)
d) Here Shabbos is possessive (My Shabbasos)
e) Before we were told to ‘honour (Kabed) our parents – here we are told to ‘revere them’.
f) “your father preceded ‘your mother’ in the 10 Commandments – here the order is reversed.
g) What do we need the word ‘man’ in the mitzvah to revere parents (it would be sufficient to have written ‘revere your mother and your father’ in the same way it wrote ‘keep my Sabbaths’.
h) Furthermore the word ‘man’ presents an internal contradiction in the subject of the verse – for ‘a man’ refers to an individual, yet the verb ‘revere’ is in the construct of referring to a group.
i) What does the verse add by concluding with “I am Hashem your God? And didn’t the last verse just say this? And wait! The next verse does too! This all seems like it is begging for explanation.
Let us begin by remembering that this parsha is about being kedoshim, which, as we explained is an exhortation to the entire gamut of our people to pull away from lowliness and elevate ourselves. Thus we can expect to begin on a more practical level, focused on the nitty gritty life of being a Jew, as opposed to the overarching platitudes expressed in the Ten Commandments, when the nation themselves were on a much higher level, in the midst of an unprecedented revelation with the Creator, whereas now, they are back on the ground, and post the sin of the Golden Calf which caused a tremendous downfall in our spiritual level.
Therefore the focus of the Ten Commandments was positive an idealistic: Remember the Sabbath, Honour your parents – hoping that all necessary conduct would naturally result from a proper appreciation of these ideals. Now we are working our way back up (akin to our job right now in our counting the Omer from Pesasch to Shavuos), and we need more hands on, spoken out mitzvos: particulars of keeping shabbos, and of not offending parents. From a more human, bottom-up approach, our relationship towards our parents is more primary than our relationship to the transcendent, thus this is one reason that parents come first in our parsha.
Another reason why Shabbos follows honouring parents, just as in the Ten Commandments they were adjacent, demonstrates that honour and reverence for parents is paralleled with honouring and revering Hashem. (Thus the first test if one is ‘holy’ is whether they talk back to their parents!) This is such a massive principle, that Shabos was also written after parents as a limitation; just as by shabbos being written after the command to build a temple we learn two things: one – there is some overlap or conflict between the domain of the two subjects, and two – that shabbos trumps the temple, in other words, those creative activities required to build the Mishkan are precisely the 39 categories of work that we are required to desist from on Shabbos. So too the juxtaposition in our verse teaches that when there is a conflict between Shabbos, or any command of Hashem, and a command from your parents, the Hashem’s command trumps.
This is also hinted to in Shabbos being possessive in our verse – i.e. it is not yours to play or tamper with, it is My Shabbos, – my mitzvos are absulote, whereas mitzvos that come from others (parents, the poor, your boss, your teacher, your children), are relative – they only have weight so long as they can be accorded a fitting place within the bounds of Torah, but as soon as the request or deed breaches the the other mitzvos, than that request has forsaken the status of a mitzvah and is now quite the opposite, and will be to your discredit to proceed with it.
Rashi says that this is also alluded to in “I am Hashem your (plural) God”. i.e. You are both obligated in My honour.
The Sforno says Shabbos is plural, for it refers here to all the Sabbaths – including the 7th year where the land is let fallow, as well as are monetary debts – all of which are difficult and may come in conflict with person interests and the requests of others, and yet precisely because of this, each serve to testify to there being a Creator and Conductor of the world.
As for the reversing of mother and father, the gemarra says that it is revealed before the Creator that in general, children will naturally have more reverence and awe for their fathers (who are stronger, and give more discipline, and teach them the laws of the Torah), thus the Hashem wanted us to strengthen our weaker arm, by telling us first to be careful to revere our mothers. Conversely, a mother coddles her children, and her warm and giving relationship with them makes it more natural for a child to care for his mother than his father, thus to empower our backhand, Torah first tells us to honour our fathers – for the Torah was not written for angels, but a frail emotional species, and it is as pedagogical as much as it is legal.
3. The parsha has many verses which end with “I am Hashem your God” – including 3 in a row at the outset – why? Do we need all the reminders? Does Hashem need the billing?
A: The first is telling us why and how to be kedoshim’, for Hashem, in whose image we are made is ‘kodesh’. By Shabbos we just mentioned Rashi. The next refers to punishment and reward. Other times” I am Hashem” refers to a mitzvah which one might feel that they could get away with’ like faulty weights, or pretending not to see a person we are supposed to stand up for – and the Torah is remining us that from Hashem, nothing is hidden, and we will be held accountable for our thoughts and secret deeds.
4. How many different forms of monetary crimes are discussed in the parsha?
The connection of honesty and business in Judaism:
(here are a few though: Stealing, robbing, swearing falsely about money, withholding wages, not paying on time, faulty weights and measures, favouring the poor or wealthy in monetary disputes, not lending or giving based on revenge or having grudges from these matters, denying payments, forcing deals, leaving over certain parts of one’s crop for the poor, giving biased business advice due to personal interests.) – So if one wants to be ‘kodesh’ holy to Hashem, and a ambassador for the Creator, one must be scrupulous in all aspect of his business life.
5. How does Rashi explain the mitzvah of ‘don’t put a stumbling block before a blind man? Why?
A: Rashi says that this mitzvah is about not giving biased or unfit advice to one who is blind/ignorant about the issue and relying on you.
We discussed in the parsha Metsora the same positive word “giving’ used in a strange context of one’s house becoming afflicted with Tsaraas –and due to this Rashi brought the Midrash that when they broke the walls of their houses, they found buried treasure (from the Canaanite nations who feared our conquest and hid their valuables). If the verse meant what it first appears, it should have said ‘don’t put’ or don’t place’, or don’t give’ is clearly unusual. Secondly, the verse concludes with “I am Hashem” – which as we said generally refers to matters of the heart, between you and your Creator, which does not fit well for blatant affront to another – even if he can’t see, the matter is totally unjustifiable, and does not require subtle warnings. Therefore Rashi says that it refers to an act of giving, but one which is improper, only that nobody will be aware that it is wrong except for Hashem and you. (Rashi only quoted the words ‘before a blind man, don’t give a impediment – and not the conclusion of the verse “I am Hashem” – implying that Rashi was bothered by our first matter “give” – for it is a gule in Rashi and other commentators that they highlight the issue they are grappling with in their beginning quotation.)
6. Whom does the parsha tell us not to curse? Why?
A: A deaf person. Rashi says, specifically him, for he is unaware and defenselfess.
Sforno writes, even a deaf person, who cannot sense it, and more so one who can hear and will be pained by it.
7. What do we learn from the juxtaposition in the verse: “Don’t go talebearing amongst your people. Don’t stand on the blood of your peer.”
On a Halachic level, although we musn’t use our faculty of speech to express evil, there are however times when it is permitted, and even mandatory to say what we know if it will prevent injury or loss or pain, and at such an instance if we proudly keep ourselves from saying what we think is forever and for always ‘lashon hara’, than we are guilty of standing on the blood of another.
On a deeper, and more character-related level, I thought that we are being described two modes of people: the hunters, the busybodies, the butterflies, and the nesters, the dwellers, the pillars. We are being told that neither mode is a safe haven, going around and being social is liable to lead to gossip and damaging words (as the verse says “don’t GO and do….), but the solution is not the other extreme either, to be silent, and still (as the verse says “don’t STAND”, (like Europeans who claim innocence for not actively being involved in the slaughter of our people in the camp across the street). For at times we are needed, and Hashem causes events to pass our way at times to get involved and at times to resist. We were given limbs to act with, and we must use everything in its proper measure, according to the golden mean of the Torah.
8. How is the mitzvah of rebuke couched? How do we define rebuke in Judaism?
According to the Rambam the verse “don’t hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your fellow; you should not bear a sin on his account” is not three separate commands, but all part of one sequence. Namely, when somebody wrongs you, don’t harbour that hate inside and let it divide the two of you, rather go and reprove him – say ‘why did you do that to me?’, ‘I was upset about …, did I understand it right?’ – but be careful not to embarrass him when you rebuke him (e.g. by doing it publicly, or painfully), otherwise you will bear a sin on his account.
The Rambam says there is another mitzvah of rebuke not related to personal conflict, but a general directive which is entirely focused on the other person’s welfare. Just as a parent is pained when his/her child is hurting himself, or going down a bad path, so too we must take heart for all our Jewish family, and do what we can that they are not wasting their lives and damaging themselves in this world and in the next. This is not rebuke out of zealousness or intolerance, but a gentle, personalized reaching out of altruistic concern for the erring person.
Giving proper rebuke of this variety is perhaps the hardest mitzvah, for so many biases and egos are involved – in fact Rabbi Akiva said, even about his pious and sincere generation – that there were no longer people capable of giving rebuke. His contemporaries chimed in ‘there are no longer people capable of receiving it. Thus if one is incapable of doing a mitzvah, one is exempt (like one with out arms is exempt from tefillin). (Of course there remains the role of education, in the home and with a teacher, and self-improvement. In times of true danger, we must remember ‘don’t stand over the blood of your brother’. The need to protest against wrongdoing is also, unfortunately necessary at times – but this has nothing to do with the mitzvah of rebuke which is solely for the good of the other.)
9. “Love your peer as yourself” What does this mitzvah entail?
Rashi quotes Rabi Akiva “this is a overarching principal in Torah” why? And how does it extend to all the aspects of Torah (E.g. One’s private obligations and the mitzvos relating to Hashem)?
It is not necessary to say that Rabbi Akiva’s principal contains the entirety of the Torah, but many do want to understand it that way (as in the famous gemarra when the convert comes to Hillel and asks him to teach him the entire Torah on one foot, to which Hillel replies “Don’t to to others what is hateful to you _i.e. the converse, or baseline of our verse- the rest is commentary; now go and learn.” Hence we could suggest that “Your peer” could refer to Hashem – Rashi on the gemarra writes this, and the term REYA – is used for Hashem in other places in scripture – this would make the conclusion of the verse flow nicely “I am Hashem”.
If we take peer/neighbour as it appears, we have to think on a deeper level to grasp the unity contained in this principle. Ultimately Hashem runs the world in accordance with our deeds: if we do His Will, then He does our will, ideally this should perpetuate a perfect marriage where each is devoted to fulfilling the needs of the other. All good comes from Hashem, that is why all blessings start with Baruch – our acknowledging Hashem as the source of all blessing. When a minority sinned with the Golden Calf, Hashem drew away, and we fell – everybody, as a result of the distance from the Creator. Therefore if to truly be beneficent to your peer, it does not suffice to simply do social deeds and direct kindness, for if one’s service to Hashem remains wanting then the world is going to suffer from being cut off from its Source of goodness.
The rest of the questions about this mitzvah which I asked, we can save till next year
10. What hair-related mitzvos and customs stem from the parsha?
Not to shave with a razor.
Not to shave off the corners of our faces – (the extra sanctity of beard and payos comes from our mystical traditions) – The custom of priests was, to round off their heads. This represents the non-Jewish creed that to achieve holiness, there must be an absolute break from physicality. Our parsha teaches that Judaism has the exact opposite approach, rather holiness is manifest in the realm of the physical when it is mastered and channeled to serve Hashem. Our holy day Shabbos is imbibed with delicacies and nice clothing, Kiddush is over wine, normal marital life is not only condoned in Judaism, but abstention from it (even for the sake of ‘saintliness’), is sinful- -a Nazirite must bring a sin offering at the conclusion of his vow, for having abstained from wine – since it is an important component of creation which we must strive to use in harmony with being ‘ a holy people’.
Lastly – the custom of not cutting a child hair for the first three years is related (in kaballah) to the mitzvah of Orla in our parsha – whereby we are commanded not to partake of the fruit of a tree during its first three years.
11. What is implied by “judge your fellow with justice” Why does Rashi bring a second interpretation?
A: It would seem to order judges not to corrupt the law. However, this is a very simplistic halacha after many more refined, subtle commands which would make this law seem quite superfluous. Therefore Rashi brings the oral tradition that this mitzvah is not to judges at all, at least not to professional judges, but rather to you and me – that the way we perceive and judge each other should be fair. Many interpret this as favourable, that assume the best. The truth is, that even if we stick to the plain meaning of the word ‘fair/justly’, we can understand it this way. In other words, if we see another Jew do something which seems iffy, and than we take into account the greater perspective that this person is one who generally keeps all the mitzvos, demonstrating a good level of honesty, integrity, fear of heaven, and self-control, then the most just interpretation of his action would lean to his favour.
Thus we are not being told to be naïve or all sunshine and roses, but rather to be realistic and fair. When we have to be cautious and suspicious then it would be wrong not to, still we should want to see good in our fellow Jew.
12. If somebody is unkind to you, can you be unkind back? Are you good if you manage to respond to him with kindness, despite his selfishness or unfairness, which you hold in your heart?
It is forbidden to hold a grudge – this is a law of the Torah just as it is forbidden to eat on Yon Kippur. Yes it is hard, and certainly knocks against our nature and general expectations of Western society – but the Torah expects us to do better. We were not put here to be mediocre; we weren’t made in the image of the Creator and given His Universe-Creating tool (the Torah) for nothing. (and by the way – we see that Jews, no matter where we go, and what we do, we excel, we innovate, we tear down and create.)
We can take to heart that if we see that our Creator is commanding us to do these things, it must be that we are capable of them; this boost of confidence should help us a great deal in guiding and motivating us to fulfill what each individual relates to as the more challenging aspects of Judaism.
13. How does our parsha show us how the Creator wants us to relate to the elderly?
-with great respect. We ought to stand in their presence. The same goes for an exceptional Torah scholar (termed ‘elder’ in the parsha demonstrating the inherent association of wisdom and honor to age.) (- this is provided he embodies his learning, otherwise he may as well be a walking CD ROM). – or an average Torah teacher from whom you learned a great amount. (this is very relevant to the history of these days of counting the Omer, and therefore can be a focus for our personal efforts at this auspicious time.)
There are so many interesting and relevant topics in this portion- as we see it was said over to the entire nation as a whole – so we’ll save the rest of the treasures for future years. Now we will continue with the story of Ruth and the connection to Shavous.
We read on this holiday the powerful story of King David’s grandmother – Ruth. She was a non – Jewish princess who gave up a life of luxury and royalty to be a Jew. Her Jewish husband and brother-in-law all died except her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi begged Ruth not to accompany her back to Israel, but Ruth refused due to her love for Naomi and Judaism. King David- Ruth’s grandson was born and died on holiday date. His son Solomon led the Jews through times of both Peace and Prosperity. We should all emulate Ruth and have the power to overcome all that lies in our paths.
Ruth started out as a non-Jew. We should all pay attention to how highly respected she became in our mists. If we start out as Jews and look how highly respected she became in our mists. If we start out as Jews, how much more strength we should have to continue as Jews.
There were 2 mountains that fought to have the Torah given away on them. The Tall Mighty Mountain said, “I’m the best”. The small mountain said,”No way”. G-d wouldn’t pick me! Guess what, G-d did pick it for it wasn’t full of it. This was the story of how Mount Sinai was picked.
Today, we ornament our Synagogue and home with flowers.